(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
He was an idol to Merle Haggard, Roy Orbison and Willie Nelson, who cited him as a major influence. Many music critics and fans and artists claim he is the best country singer ever. Period. End of debate.
His career began toward the end of Hank Williams’ short but brilliant run as the champion of honky-tonk music. They actually shared a short tour together in 1951, when Hank was at his peak and Lefty was beginning to ascend.
In what was obviously a labor of brotherly love, David Frizzell has written a biography of his big brother, the late William Orville Frizzell, better known as “Sonny” to his family. The music world knows and remembers him as Lefty Frizzell.
In his foreword in the book, Haggard writes, “The impact Lefty had on country music is not even measurable. … No one could handle a song like Lefty. He would hold on to each word until he finally decided to drop it and pick up the next one. Most of us learned to sing listening to him.”
The book, I Love You a Thousand Ways: The Lefty Frizzell Story, is obviously a family affair, but author David Frizzell — an accomplished country singer in his own right — doesn’t pull any punches in presenting his portrait of Lefty Frizzell, the artist, and Lefty Frizzell, the man. In the process, David Frizzell very much humanizes Lefty Frizzell and brings him to life on the page.
Lefty was not a man to ever turn down a drink. Or walk away from a fight. He had a fierce temper. As a teenager, he beat up his father for physically abusing his mother. And he and his wife Alice went through years of serious fights that became seriously physical and once got to the point where Alice pulled a gun on him.
He came along in a fascinating era, in the early 1950s, when Hank Williams peaked and honky-tonk ruled and no one knew that Elvis and rock ’n’ roll were poised to virtually obliterate country music. On one occasion at his home in Los Angeles, he was having so much fun shooting pool with friends that he passed up an opportunity to meet and hang out with the young rising star Elvis Presley. He just wasn’t interested.
He was pitched “That’ll Be the Day,” a song that did much in creating young rocker Buddy Holly’s career. It didn’t really click with Lefty.
When he made his second appearance on the Grand Ole Opry in 1951, he brought a drummer with his band. The Opry management refused to allow him to use drums during his performance. When he and Opry performer Don Gibson went out drinking one night and Gibson spent the evening bitterly complaining about his treatment by the Opry, Lefty drove him home, helped him up to his front door and then — angered by having to listen to one more Gibson outburst — slammed him up against the house, knocking off Gibson’s toupee.
In 1951, he accomplished the then-unthinkable feat of having four singles in the Billboard Top 10.
Back in the late 1940s, as a teenager, he served jail time for statutory rape. During his six months in jail, he wrote to Alice daily and promised her all the royalties from his songs. He wrote in one letter, “You’ll never have to work again when I get out.” During that stint in jail, he wrote many songs for her. One of them would be his most famous song, “I Love You a Thousand Ways,” which also would become his first Billboard charting song, as well as his first No. 1 hit.
In 1951, he was arrested backstage at the Opry and charged with “contributory delinquency” of a minor, underage girl. His wife Alice was pregnant at the time with their second child and was not happy with this latest career development. Their marriage survived somehow.
Lefty toured almost non-stop in his glory years, likely breaking his health with the long drives on the pre-interstate two-lane highways, the drinking, the bad non-eating habits, the ulcers, the high blood pressure and the night after night grind-’em-out shows of his grueling tours. His recording and publishing deals did not always pay him what he deserved, and the hit songs didn’t come along as quickly as they once did, so he continued with the constant touring schedule.
In the end, his recording career lasted 25 years. He had six Billboard No.1 hits and charted a total of 39 songs. The big hits will last: “I Love You a Thousand Ways,” “Always Late,” “Long Black Veil,” “That’s the Way Love Goes,” “I Never Go Around Mirrors,” “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time,” “Mom and Dad’s Waltz” and “Saginaw, Michigan.” He later was voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Alice finally filed for divorce in 1975. Lefty was 47 when he died of a stroke less than three months later. His life was not a grand opera on the scale of a Hank Williams or a Johnny Cash drama. He was basically a straight-ahead simple workingman with a gift and a love for music. His songs transcend his life.